Fright night, why we love to be afraid on Halloween

Nuala Woulfe explores our need to be frightened out of our lives as Halloween comes round

Halloween is upon us and right around the country people will be doing haunted castle tours, ghost walks and horror flicks will be the hot rental at local media stores. It’s the time of year where we openly flirt with being afraid, but why do we do we want to feel fear anyway?

According to fear expert, psychologist, Dr Bryan Roche of the National University, Maynooth humans court fear because they,‘enjoy playing with emotions’. “When we watch a scary movie or visit a haunted house, it’s the kick of knowing it’s not real, it’s just imagination and feelings.”

There is also an element of getting a kick out of a ‘safe’ scary experience when we live fairly predictable lives Interestingy though, what people fear varies considerably. “Fear is acquired and very few of us have fears in common, an obvious one is putting your hand in a fire, but mostly people have unique fears,” explains Dr Roche.

Halloween at Tayto Park

Triggers are also an important aspect to each individual’s fear, the tiniest detail can be important.

“For example, when people fear spiders, for some it’s their legs that cause fear, for others it’s size, or whether or not they’re moving.

“With scary films, some people might find the music the worst thing or others might avoid a film with spirits but say they can handle gore. Ironically, people often seek out the film that makes them feel the worst, but there’s elation if you survive till the end.”

Halloween at Tayto Park

In terms of your body, watching a scary movie is a bit like being on a rollercoaster.

“The feelings you’re getting on a rollercoaster are the same as if you’re going to die but you reframe the physical sensations, the fear becomes fun, something pleasurable instead.” Getting through a scary situation gives ‘survivors’ a natural ‘high’ similar to what marathon runners experience at the end of a race — a sense of euphoria, such as people who’ve survived a near death experience, report. Having a scary experience, even if it’s only watching a movie, and knowing how your body reacts, can even be beneficial in real life if you have to handle bad or even tragic news.

“If you are willing to experience unpleasant emotions, if you allow your body to recognise the feelings that you’ve experienced before in another situation, you can say to yourself, I recognise this, these feelings will pass, I can handle it,” Dr Bryan explains.

A little Halloween-appropriate fear can even benefit children. “For some children Halloween is too much but it depends on how kids relate to feelings in their body. As long as what is happening is age appropriate and there’s a loving, safe, environment , teaching kids how to navigate emotions is useful while wrapping children in cotton wool is not.

Halloween at Tayto Park

“Knowing that we can feel different things and that feelings pass helps children get through a scary nightmare or something like the loss of a pet.

“As parents, we should notice feelings in our children, but not make too big a deal out of them either.”

Psychologist Dr Simon Dymond at the University of Swansea is another fear expert who agrees that being scared can be beneficial. “There is some evidence that the way in which people regulate or react to danger or threat helps them deal with and identify threat better in the future.

“You have more experience in how your body reacts to a situation. For example, bungee jumpers have become good at regulating how their body reacts, they ride the emotions of what their stress hormones are doing.”

After a safe scary experience has finished, it is not uncommon for people to laugh which apparently also benefits us socially.

“Laughing helps in the social coping with fear, I think there’s an identification with mutual vulnerability. The giggle at the end indicates to the other person, ‘I’m scared too; it is a form of bonding,” explains Dr Dymond.

Halloween at Tayto Park

So if you’re planning to watch a scary movie with your partner this Halloween, know that a ‘thrill experience’ is likely to heighten physical intimacy as pleasure and fear become mixed. Also, don’t expect your boyfriend or husband to be the ‘strong’ one throughout the experience, as Dr Bryan says, it’s not possible to say if women or men are more innately fearful.

“A boy would be given a hard time by peers and probably, adults if he said he was afraid of spiders, whereas that fear would be tolerated more in a girl, girls and boys are treated differently from an early age.” So this Halloween, be prepared to huddle tight and remember; if he laughs at all, he’s scared, so don’t forget to hold his hand!


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